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Archive for the ‘Big Government’ Category

The folks at the Fraser Institute in Canada have just released a new version of Economic Freedom of the World.

As has been the case for many years, Hong Kong is #1 and Singapore is #2, followed by New Zealand (#3) and Switzerland (#4).

Interestingly, the United States improved one spot, climbing to #5.

Here’s the data for the top two quartiles.

The new version includes 2017, so fans of Trump will be able to claim vindication.

But not much.

As you can see, the EFW data shows that America’s score rose only slightly, from 8.17 to 8.19.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that Trump’s economic policy is somewhat incoherent.

He’s been good on taxes and red tape, but bad on spending and trade. So I’m not surprised we’re mostly treading water.

Now let’s look at the bottom half of the ranking.

In last place, unsurprisingly, we find Venezuela.

Let’s close with two final visuals.

Here’s a chart showing that poor people in the nations with the most economic liberty have much higher incomes that poor people in countries with less economic liberty.

The moral of the story, needless to say, is that people who genuinely want to help the poor should support free markets and limited government.

Last but not least, here are two tables I prepared.

The one on the left shows the nations with the biggest positive and negative changes since 2010, while the one on the right shows the biggest changes since 2000.

In some cases, such as Zimbabwe, a nation improved because it was in such terrible shape that it would have been difficult to do worse.

Though Venezuela seems determined to show that a terrible score can drop even farther.

For what it’s worth, Egypt slide toward statism is being subsidized by massive amounts of aid from American taxpayers.

And speaking of America, I’m embarrassed to acknowledge that the United States has suffered the 10-largest drop when looking at changes since 2000. That’s a legacy of the bad policies we got from George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Thanks for nothing, guys!

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I’ve been in Rome the past few days with my charming and beautiful daughter.

We visited the usual tourists spots, including the Coliseum and other remnants of Ancient Rome.

And I couldn’t help but wonder how such a powerful empire could collapse, driving people from relative prosperity to the economic misery of the Dark Ages.

I briefly addressed this topic in early 2016, but only to make a point about the (myriad) problems of modern Italy.

So let’s take a closer look at this issue and learn how excessive government helped bring down the Roman Empire.

The Foundation for Economic Education has an excerpt of Will Durant’s book, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3: Caesar and Christ. And here are my excerpts from that article.

Diocletian, with his aides, faced the problems of economic decay. …he substituted a managed economy for the law of supply and demand. …He distributed food to the poor at half the market price or free, and undertook extensive public works to appease the unemployed. To ensure the supply of necessaries for the cities and the armies, he brought many branches of industry under complete state control, beginning with the import of grain… The state had long since owned most quarries, salt deposits, and mines; now it forbade the export of salt, iron, gold, wine, grain, or oil from Italy, and strictly regulated the importation of these articles. …the majority of industrial establishments and guilds in Italy were brought under the control of the corporate state. Butchers, bakers, masons, builders, glass-blowers, ironworkers, engravers, were ruled by detailed governmental regulations. …Such a system could not work without price control. In 301, Diocletian and his colleagues issued an Edictum de pretiis, dictating maximum legal prices or wages for all important articles or services in the Empire. …The weakness of this managed economy lay in its administrative cost. The required bureaucracy was so extensive that Lactantius, doubtless with political license, estimated it at half the population. …To support the bureaucracy, the court, the army, the building program, and the dole, taxation rose to unprecedented peaks of ubiquitous continuity. …Since every taxpayer sought to evade taxes, the state organized a special force of revenue police to examine every man’s property and income; torture was used upon wives, children, and slaves to make them reveal the hidden wealth or earnings of the household.

Torture?!? Let’s not give the IRS any new ideas.

Here’s an excerpt from FEE’s excerpt from Human Action, the classic tome by Ludwig von Mises.

…the Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the “good” emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labor and of interregional commerce. …What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness… The policy of the annona, which was tantamount to a nationalization or municipalization of the grain trade…its effects were rather unsatisfactory. Grain was scarce in the urban agglomerations, and the agriculturists complained about the unremunerativeness of grain growing. …The interference of the authorities upset the adjustment of supply to the rising demand. …in the political troubles of the third and fourth centuries the emperors resorted to currency debasement. With the system of maximum prices the practice of debasement completely paralyzed both the production and the marketing of the vital foodstuffs and disintegrated society’s economic organization. …The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of interventionism and its political corollary, the Führer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.

Just in case it’s not clear, Mises was referring to “classical liberalism.”

In a column for FEE, Professor Richard Ebeling explores the impact of government intervention in Rome.

The Roman government also set price controls on wheat. In the fourth century, B.C., the Roman government would buy grain during periods of shortages and sell it at a price fixed far below the market price. In 58 B.C., this was improved upon; the government gave grain away to the citizens of Rome at a zero price, that is, for free. The result was inevitable: farmers left the land… In 45 B.C., Julius Caesar discovered that almost one-third of the Roman citizenry was receiving their grain supply for free from the State. To deal with the financial cost of these supplies of wheat, the Roman government resorted to debasement of the currency, that is, inflation. Pricing-fixing of grain, shortages of supply, rising budgetary problems for the Roman government, monetary debasement and resulting worsening price inflation were a continual occurrence through long periods of Roman history. …In the Greek parts of the Roman Empire, archeologists have found the price tables listing the government-mandated prices. They list over 1,000 individual prices and wages set by the law and what the permitted price and wage was to be for each of the commodities, goods, and labor services.

Sounds like Elizabeth Warren’s platform.

But not all Roman leaders were economic illiterates. Writing for FEE, Marc Hyden has a reasonably favorable assessment of Antoninus Pius.

…most Roman emperors, at least at certain points in their lives, were little more than murderous megalomaniacs too willing to spark wars for their own benefit and chip away at the Romans’ liberties. This is true even for the most revered emperors, including Augustus, Hadrian, and Constantine. …one emperor finally came to mind: Antoninus Pius. While imperfect, for the most part, Antoninus ruled with prudence, restraint, and moderation. He is known as one of the so-called “five good emperors,”… Antoninus often seemed to eschew the grandeur of his office. He sold off imperial lands, reduced or eliminated superfluous salaries, and lived in his own villas rather than imperial estates. …he believed he simply could not justify draining the public treasury for travel. …He conscientiously guarded the public treasury while simultaneously reducing confiscations and his subjects’ tax burden. …He so prudently managed the state’s finances that when he died, he left the public treasury with a massive surplus—a rarity in old Rome. Part of this surplus appears to be related to Antoninus’ aversion to vanity projects and unnecessary wars. …His life is perhaps best summed up by his successor, Marcus Aurelius, who described Antoninus as a grounded, introspective, and humble man who was respectful of others’ liberties.

I guess we can say that Antoninus was the Grover Cleveland of the Roman Empire.

By the way, there is an alternative left-of-center explanation of Rome’s decline. Professor Mark Koyama of George Mason University summarizes that viewpoint.

In the Rise of Western Christendom, [Peter] Brown summarizes the new wisdom on the transition from late antiquity to the early middle ages. …Long distance trade contracted. Cities shrank and emptied out. The division of labor became less complex. Many professions common in the Roman world disappeared. All of this is relatively uncontroversial. At issue is what caused this decline? …according to Brown: “The fault lay with the weakening of the late Roman state. The state had been built up to an unparalleled level in order to survive the crisis of the third century. The “downsizing” of this state, in the course of of the fifth century, destroyed the “command economy” on which the provinces had become dependent.” …Brown contends that the Roman state was the engine of economic growth of late antiquity. …Brown argues that these high taxes were in fact the source of economic dynamism: “High taxation did not ruin the populations of the empire. Rather, high tax demands primed the pump for a century of hectic economic growth.”

He then explains why he is not impressed with that analysis.

This, then, is Brown’s explanation for the decline of the Roman economy. It turns out that when examined one by one each one of these premises is either on shaky grounds factually, economically, or requires us to make implausible assumptions. …For conventional Keynesians, the multiplier on government spending boosts short-run aggregate demand, but aggregate demand is not the binding constraint on long-run growth, supply is; growth depends on the productive capacity of the economy. If anything, the impact of the Roman tax state on the productive capacity of the economy was more likely to be negative rather than positive. Resources were diverted from the private hands of peasants, merchants and small landowners and diverted into the hands of soldiers and officeholders. …Brown’s argument requires that at the margin, peasants preferred additional leisure to the wide array of affordable manufactured consumers goods that were on offer in markets and shops across the Roman empire. This is not impossible. But it is at odds with what we know about peasant behavior in other commercial societies such as early modern Europe. …Brown’s argument requires us to believe that if, for instance, the Roman state stopped spending on armor and weapons in a city, then the blacksmith and armor manufacturer would go out of business. This is a classic case of focusing on the seen and missing the unseen. It neglects the fact that lower taxes would give individuals more disposable income and they would likely spend some of this income to purchase amphora, pottery, textiles or other urban goods that we know the Roman economy was capable of producing. The blacksmith might switch to producing pots and pans rather than swords but he would not then go out of business.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I side with Koyama over Brown.

Yes, there is ample evidence that some degree of government is important for a thriving and successful economy.

  • A national defense protects a country and gives people confidence to accumulate capital.
  • A justice system protects against criminal activity.
  • A legal system provides a mechanism of resolving disputes.

Rome prospered and grew when the degree of economic intervention was tolerable.

Over time, though, Roman officials went overboard. There was too much intervention, too much dependency, and too much taxation.

The moral of the story (as we see in modern nations such as Venezuela, Greece, and Argentina) is that nations can move in the wrong direction.

The great challenge, of course, is figuring out a way to confine government so it focuses solely on core “public goods.”

America’s Founders produced such a system, but sadly the courts have failed to protect and preserve the Constitution’s limits on the powers of the central government.

September 14, 2019 Addendum: In response to some of the very good comments below, I fully agree that many other factors contributed to Rome’s decline. This columns focuses solely on the role of economic policy.

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In 2016, Bernie Sanders was considered very extreme for wanting to transform America into a very expensive European-style welfare state.

If the Democratic Party’s presidential debates this summer are any guide, that radical approach is now mainstream. Almost all the candidates have been competing over who could most quickly turn American into Greece.

The Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, was especially determined to show that he was even more radical than Bernie Sanders. At one point, while watching de Blasio bellow about class-warfare taxes, I thought about a satirical version of the Pizza Hut commercial, with the Vermont Senator exclaiming “No one out-crazies the Bern.”

But give de Blasio credit for tryring. His only signature moment in an otherwise lackluster campaign occurred when he said he wanted to “tax the hell out of the wealthy.”

He even has a www.taxthehell.com website where he outlines his various proposals to cripple investment and entrepreneurship by imposing confiscatory taxes.

In other words, he is like Crazy Bernie in that he seems to really believe in ever-larger government. Consider these excerpts from a Q&A session he did with New York Magazine.

…our legal system is structured to favor private property. I think people all over this city, of every background, would like to have the city government be able to determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it, what the rent will be. I think there’s a socialistic impulse, which I hear every day, in every kind of community, that they would like things to be planned in accordance to their needs. And I would, too. Unfortunately, what stands in the way of that is hundreds of years of history that have elevated property rights… Look, if I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land, how development would proceed. And there would be very stringent requirements around income levels and rents. That’s a world I’d love to see, and I think what we have, in this city at least, are people who would love to have the New Deal back, on one level. They’d love to have a very, very powerful government, including a federal government… I’m calling for a millionaires tax… need to see the wealthy paying their fair share. It frustrates me greatly that we don’t have the power here to tax the wealthy in this city.

Not only does he talk the talk, he also walks the walk.

Albeit in a bad way.

Here are some excerpts from a news report about one of his attacks on property rights.

Liberal New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is rolling out a new plan that would potentially allow the city government to seize buildings of landlords who force tenants out — a plan his opponents say amounts to “straight communism.” De Blasio…wants to take action against landlords who try to force tenants out by making the property unliveable — and pulled out an executive order to create a Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants. He said that in the event the government intervenes, the buildings would then be controlled by a “community nonprofit.” …“My first reaction was: Is this communist Cuba?” state Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, who ran against De Blasio in the 2017 mayoral race, told Fox News. “ I can say that as a daughter of Cuban refugees who fled Castro’s Cuba in 1959, this is what happened to her family, she had her home taken, my grandfather had his gas station taken.” “This is extreme even for Mayor de Blasio, because we know that he has socialist leanings, but this is straight communism and I think it’s very scary to America-loving, democracy-loving people.”

By the way, I’m guessing that landlords are in a tough position because of NYC’s rent control laws.

To be fair, many of the problems in New York City didn’t start with de Blasio.

There’s a long history of wasting money.

To be more specific, unfunded pensions are the biggest reason NYC is in deep trouble.

…the city is staring bankruptcy in the face. …but there’s been little talk about one of the main causes of the city’s growing debt: public employee pensions. As of today, nearly 75 percent of the city’s $197.8 billion deficit is due to pension and other retirement liabilities. …Sick of high taxes, residents and businesses are already leaving in droves… NYC offers five different pension plans to its municipal employees, from teachers to members of the school board. These pensions serve as a source of retirement income to former city employees and are defined benefit plans, meaning that benefits are guaranteed by the employer. …it’s no surprise that the pension plans’ funded ratio, which shows the ratio of the plans’ assets to liabilities, has dropped to 71.4 percent for NYCERS and 58.6 percent for TRS—thanks to accumulated debt. …for every dollar spent on NYCERS payroll, 34 cents goes toward pensions, and that number is 10 cents higher for TRS. …Pension contributions make up 11 percent of the city’s total budget and consume 17 percent of the city’s tax revenues. And it’s worth remembering that in the city ranked number one in local tax burden in the United States.

As you might suspect, Mayor de Blasio certainly isn’t doing anything to address this problem.

I’m simply noting that the problem existed before he took office and presumably would still exist with any other mayor.

And there are other officials in New York City who deserve scorn.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is a traveling man with some high-end tastes. The prosecutor spent $249,716 on meals and work trips to everywhere from the City of Angels to the City of Lights over the past five years, according to records obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request. Vance paid for it all – including a $4,780 roundtrip flight to London and a $2,800 stay at a five-star Paris hotel – with money his office obtained from state-asset forfeiture funds largely tied to big-sum legal settlements with banks, records show. He controls more than $600 million stemming from forfeitures. …the other city district attorneys say they did not use asset forfeiture money to cover their work travel expenses. …Vance also does not skimp when it comes to eating out… He spent $645 at Patroon on East 46th Street to cover dinner… Vance also has expensed five meals at Tribeca’s Odeon for a total of $897… During his Paris visit, he spent $94 at Le Nemrod, $124 at Marco Polo, $72 at Le Saint Regis and $169 at Le Christine, according to the expense reports. …DAs have wide-ranging flexibility on how asset forfeiture money is used. Expenditures must cover “law enforcement” issues — but few other rules exist.

Here’s a map showing Vance’s travel.

By the way, the most outrageous part of this story isn’t the luxury travel or the expensive meals.

What really irks me is that his high-flying lifestyle is made possible by asset forfeiture, which is what happens when the government steals someone’s property – oftentimes without any finding of guilt!

The bottom line is that New York City has a terrible mayor, but the problem goes way beyond one person.

Which is why this final story, from Bloomberg, should be the canary in the coal mine when contemplating the future of the city.

New York leads all U.S. metro areas as the largest net loser with 277 people moving every day — more than double the exodus of 132 just one year ago. Los Angeles and Chicago were next with triple digit daily losses of 201 and 161 residents, respectively. This is according to 2018 Census data on migration flows to the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas compiled by Bloomberg News. …While New York is experiencing the biggest net exodus, the blow is being softened by international migrant inflows. From July 2017 to July 2018, a net of close to 200,000 New Yorkers sought a new life outside the Big Apple while the area welcomed almost 100,000 net international migrants. …Some areas are affected by high home prices and local taxes, which are pushing residents out and deterring potential movers from other parts of the country. About 200,000 residents left New York last year. Los Angeles had a decline of nearly 120,000 and Chicago fell by 84,000.

Here’s the map showing the cities losing the most people and gaining the most people.

By the way, it’s no coincidence that most of the fast-growth cities are in states with no income taxes.

P.S. Mayor de Blasio wants to “tax the hell out of the wealthy” in New York City, but fortunately he’s been somewhat frustrated in that goal because of limits on his power.

P.P.S. Because taxpayers in NYC no longer have unlimited ability to deduct their state and local taxes on their federal returns, the 2017 tax law almost certainly is contributing to the exodus from New York City. And every time one of those taxpayers escape, NYC gets closer to fiscal crisis.

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Ronald Reagan must be turning over in his grave.

This newfound flirtation with industrial policy, mostly from nationalist conservatives, is especially noxious since you open the door to cronyism and corruption when you give politicians and bureaucrats the power to play favorites in the economy.

I’m going to cite three leading proponents of industrial policy. To be fair, none of them are proposing full-scale Soviet-style central planning.

But it is fair to say that they envision something akin to Japan’s policies in the 1980s.

Some of them even explicitly argue we should copy China’s current policies.

In a column for the New York Times, Julius Krein celebrates the fact that Marco Rubio and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez both believe politicians should have more power over the economy.

…a few years ago, the phrase “industrial policy” was employed mainly as a term of abuse. Economists almost universally insisted that state interventions to improve competitiveness, prioritize investment in strategic sectors and structure market incentives around political goals were backward policies doomed to failure — whether applied in America, Asia or anywhere in between. …In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, however, the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal consensus seems intellectually and politically bankrupt. …a growing number of politicians and intellectuals…are finding common ground under the banner of industrial policy. Even the typically neoliberal Financial Times editorial board recently argued in favor of industrial policy, calling on the United States to “drop concerns around state planning.” …Why now? The United States has essentially experienced two lost decades, and inequality has reached Gilded Age levels. …United States industry is losing ground to foreign competitors on price, quality and technology. In many areas, our manufacturing capacity cannot compete with what exists in Asia.

There are some very sloppy assertions in the above passages.

You can certainly argue that Reagan and Clinton had similar “neoliberal” policies (i.e., classical liberal), but Bush was a statist.

Also, the Financial Times very much leans to the left. Not crazy Sanders-Corbyn leftism, but consistently in favor of a larger role for government.

Anyhow, what exactly does Mr. Krein have in mind?

More spending, more intervention, and more cronyism.

A successful American industrial policy would draw on replicable foreign models as well as take lessons from our history. Some simple first steps would be to update the Small Business Investment Company and Small Business Innovation Research programs — which played a role in catalyzing Silicon Valley decades ago — to focus more on domestic hardware businesses. …Government agencies could also step in to seed investment funds focused on strategic industries and to incentivize commercial lending to key sectors, policies that have proven successful in other countries… the United States needs to invest more in applied research… Elizabeth Warren has also proposed a government-sponsored research and licensing model for the pharmaceutical industry, which could be applied to other industries as well. …Senator Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, has called for the creation of a National Institute of Manufacturing, taking inspiration from the National Institutes of Health. …A successful industrial policy would aim to strengthen worker bargaining power while organizing and training a better skilled labor force. Industrial policy also involves, and even depends upon, rebuilding infrastructure.

In other words, if you like the so-called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and Elizabeth Warren’s corporate cronyism, you’ll love all the other ideas for additional government intervention.

Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute also wants to give politicians more control over the private economy.

My argument rests on three claims… First, that market economies do not automatically allocate resources well across sectors. Second, that policymakers have tools that can support vital sectors that might otherwise suffer from underinvestment—I will call those tools “industrial policy.” Third, that while the policies produced by our political system will be far from ideal, efforts at sensible industrial policy can improve upon our status quo, which is itself far from ideal. …Our popular obsession with manufacturing isn’t some nostalgic anachronism. …manufacturing is unique for the complexity of its supply chains and the interaction between innovation and production. …the case for industrial policy requires recognition not only of certain sectors’ value, but also that the market will overlook the value in theory and that we are underinvesting in practice. That the free market will not solve this should be fairly self-evident… Manufacturing output is only 12% of GDP in America… Productivity growth has slowed nationwide, even flatlining in recent years. Wages have stagnated. Our trade deficit has skyrocketed.

So what are his solutions?

Like Julius Krein, he wants government intervention. Lots of it.

Fund basic research across the sciences… Fund applied research… Support private-sector R&D and commercialization with subsidies and specialized institutes… Increase infrastructure investment… Bias the tax code in favor of profits generated from the productive use of labor… Retaliate aggressively against mercantilist countries that undermine market competition… Tax foreign acquisition of U.S. assets, making U.S. goods relatively more attractive… Impose local content requirements in key supply chains like communications… Libertarians often posit an ideal world of policy non-intervention as superior to the messy reality of policy action. But that ideal does not exist—messy reality is the only reality… That’s especially the case here, because you can have free trade, or you can have free markets, but you can’t have both.

I’m not sure what’s worse, an infrastructure boondoggle or a tax on inbound investment?

More tinkering with the tax code, or more handouts for industries?

And here are excerpts from a column for the Daily Caller by Robert Atkinson.

When the idea first surfaced in the late 1970s that the United States should adopt a national industrial policy, mainstream “free market” conservatives decried it as one step away from handing the reins of the economy over to a state planning committee like the Soviet Gosplan. But now, …the idea has been getting a fresh look among some conservatives who argue that, absent an industrial strategy, America will be at a competitive disadvantage. …Conservatives’ skepticism of industrial policy perhaps stems from the idea’s origins. It started gaining currency during the Carter administration, with many traditional Democratic party interests, including labor unions and politicians in the Northeast and Midwest, arguing for a strong federal role… However, over the next decade, as economic competitors like Germany and Japan began to challenge the United States in consumer electronics, autos, and even high-tech industries like computer chips, the focus of debates about industrial policy broadened to encompass overall U.S. competitiveness. …There was a bipartisan response…that collectively amounted to a first draft of a national industrial policy… But as the economic challenge from Japan receded…, interest in industrial policies waned. …The newly dominant neoclassical economists preached that the U.S. “recipe” of free markets, property rights, and entrepreneurial spirit inoculated America against any and all economic threats.

As with Krein and Cass, Atkinson wants to copy the failed interventionist policies of other nations.

But that was then and this is now — a now where we face intense competition from China. …Increasingly leaders across the political spectrum are returning to a notion that we should put the national interest at the center of economic policies, and that free-market globalization doesn’t necessarily do that… Conservatives increasingly realize that without some kind of industrial policy the United States will fall behind China, with significant national security and economic implications. …So, what would a conservative-inspired, market-strengthening industrial policy look like? …it would acknowledge that America’s “traded sector” industries are critical to our future competitiveness… The right industrial policy will advance prosperity more than laisse-faire capitalism would. …there are a significant number of market failures around innovation, including externalities, network failures, system interdependencies, and the public-goods nature of technology platforms. …this is why only government can “pick winners.” …It should mean expanding supports for exporters by ensuring the Ex-Im Bank has adequate lending authority… this debate boils down to a fundamental choice for conservatives: small government and liberty versus stronger…government that delivers economic security

What’s a “market-strengthening industrial policy”? Is that like a “growth-stimulating tax increase”? Or a “work-ethic-enhancing welfare program”?

I realize I’m being snarky, but how else should I respond to someone who actually wants to expand the cronyist Export-Import Bank?

Let’s now look at what’s wrong with industrial policy.

In a column for Reason, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center warns that American politicians who favor industrial policy are misreading China’s economic history.

…calls from politicians on both sides of the aisle to implement industrial policy. …These policies are tired, utterly uninspiring schemes that governments around the world have tried and, invariably, failed at. …As for the notion that “other countries are doing it,” I’m curious to hear what great successes have come out of, say, China’s industrial policies. In his latest book, The State Strikes Back: The End of Economic Reform in China?, Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute for International Economics shows that China’s growth since 1978 has actually been the product of market-oriented reforms, not state-owned programs. …Why should we want America to become more like China? Here’s yet another politician thinking that somehow, the same government that…botched the launch of HealthCare.gov, gave us the Solyndra scandal, and can keep neither Amtrak nor the Postal Service solvent, can effectively coordinate a strategic vision for American manufacturing. …The real problem with industrial policy, economic development strategy, central planning, or whatever you want to call these interventions is that government officials…cannot outperform the wisdom of the market at picking winners. In fact, government intervention in any sector creates distortions, misdirects investments toward politically favored companies, and hinders the ability of unsubsidized competitors to offer better alternatives. Central planning in all forms is poisonous to innovation.

As usual, Veronique is spot one.

I’ve also explained that China’s economy is being held back by statist policies.

Veronique also addressed the topic of industrial policy in a column for the New York Times,

With “Made in China 2025,” Beijing’s 2015 anticapitalist plan for an industrial policy under which the state would pick “winners,” China has taken a step back from capitalism. …China’s new industrial policy has worked one marvel — namely, scaring many American conservatives into believing that the main driver of economic growth isn’t the market but bureaucrats invested with power to control the allocation of natural and financial resources. …I thought we learned this lesson after many American intellectuals, economists and politicians were proven spectacularly wrong in predicting that the Soviet Union would become an economic rival. …government officials cannot outperform the market at picking winners. In practice it ends up picking losers or hindering the abilities of the winners to achieve their greatest potential. Central planning is antithetical to innovation, as is already visible in China. …the United States has instituted industrial policies in the past out of unwarranted fears of other countries’ industrial policies. The results have always imposed great costs on consumers and taxpayers and introduced significant economic distortions. …Conservatives…should learn about the failed United States industrial policies of the 1980s, which were responses to the Japanese government’s attempt to dominate key consumer electronics technologies. These efforts worked neither in Japan nor in the United States. The past has taught us that industrial policies fail often because they favor existing industries that are well connected politically at the expense of would-be entrepreneurs… We shouldn’t allow fear-mongering to hobble America’s free enterprise system.

Amen.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to share one of my experiences as a relative newcomer to D.C. in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I had to fight all sorts of people who said that Japan was eating our lunch and that the United States needed industrial policy.

I kept pointing out that Japan deserved some praise for its post-WWII shift to markets, but that the country’s economy was being undermined by corporatism, intervention, and industrial policy.

At the time, I remember being mocked for my supposed naivete. But the past 30 years have proven me right.

Now it’s deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might say.

Except now China is the bogeyman. Which doesn’t make much sense since China lags behind the United States far more than Japan lagged the U.S. in the 1980s (per-capita output in China, at best, in only one-fourth of American levels).

And China will never catch the U.S. if it relies on industrial policy instead of pro-market reform.

So why should American policy makers copy China’s mistakes?

P.S. There is a separate issue involving national security, where there may be legitimate reasons to deny China access to high-end technology or to make sure American defense firms don’t have to rely on China for inputs. But that’s not an argument for industrial policy.

P.P.S. There is a separate issue involving trade, where there may be legitimate reasons to pressure China so that it competes fairly and behaves honorably. But that’s not an argument for industrial policy.

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When I wrote last month about the Green New Deal, I warned that it was cronyism on steroids.

Simply stated, the proposal gives politicians massive new powers to intervene and this would be a recipe for staggering levels of Solyndra-style corruption.

Well, the World Bank has some new scholarly research that echoes my concerns. Two economists investigated the relationship with the regulatory burden and corruption.

Empirical studies such as Meon and Sekkat (2005) and De Rosa et al. (2010) show that corruption is more damaging for economic performance at higher levels of regulation or lower levels of governance quality. …Building on the above literature, in this paper, we use firm-level survey data on 39,732 firms in 111 countries collected by the World Bank’s Enterprise Surveys between 2009 and 2017 to test the hypothesis that corruption impedes firm productivity more at higher levels of regulation. …estimate the model using sample weighted OLS (Ordinary Least Squares) regression analysis.

And what did they discover?

We find that the negative relationship between corruption and productivity is amplified at high levels of regulation. In fact, at low levels of regulation, the relationship between corruption and productivity is insignificant. …we find that a 1 percent increase in bribes that firms pay to get things done, expressed as the share of annual sales, is significantly associated with about a 0.9 percent decrease in productivity of firms at the 75th percentile value of regulation (high regulation). In contrast, at the 25th percentile value of regulation (low regulation), the corresponding change is very small and statistically insignificant, though it is still negative. …after we control for investment, skills and raw materials, the coefficients of the interaction term between corruption and regulation became much larger… This provides support for the hypothesis that corruption is more damaging for productivity at higher levels of regulation.

Lord Acton famously wrote that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Based on the results from the World Bank study, we can say “regulation corrupts, and added regulation corrupts additionally.”

Not very poetic, but definitely accurate.

Figure 4 from the study shows this relationship.

Seems like we need separation of business and state, not just separation of church and state.

This gives me a good excuse to recycle this video I narrated more than 10 years ago.

P.S. Five years ago, I cited a World Bank study showing that tax complexity facilitates corruption. Which means a simple and fair flat tax isn’t merely a way of achieving more prosperity, it’s also a way of draining the swamp.

The moral of the story – whether we’re looking at red tape, taxes, spending, trade, or any other issue – is that smaller government is the most effective way of reducing sleaze and corruption.

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Earlier this year, I identified Trump’s “worst ever tweet.”

I was wrong. That tweet, which displayed an astounding level of economic ignorance, is now old news.

Trump issued a tweet yesterday that is far worse because it combines bad economic theory with horrifying support for massive economic intervention. Pay special attention to the part circled in red.

Huh?!?

Since when does the President get to dictate where companies can do business?

Unfortunately, whenever he wants to.

Congress has delegated to the President massive “emergency” powers over the economy. Specifically, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) is a blank check.

Here are some excerpts from a report by the Congressional Research Service.

By the twentieth century, …Congress created statutory bases permitting the President to declare a state of emergency and make use of extraordinary delegated powers. …The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) is one such example of a twentieth-century delegation of emergency authority. …IEEPA grants the President extensive power to regulate a variety of economic transactions during a state of emergency. …Since 1977, Presidents have invoked IEEPA in 54 declarations of national emergency. On average, these emergencies last nearly a decade. Most emergencies have been geographically specific, targeting a specific country or government. …No President has used IEEPA to place tariffs on imported products from a specific country or on products imported to the United States in general. However, …such an action could happen. In addition, no President has used IEEPA to enact a policy that was primarily domestic in effect. Some scholars argue, however, that the interconnectedness of the global economy means it would probably be permissible to use IEEPA to take an action that was primarily domestic in effect. …Neither the NEA nor IEEPA define what constitutes a “national emergency.” …While IEEPA nominally applies only to foreign transactions, the breadth of the phrase, “any interest of any foreign country or a national thereof” has left a great deal of room for executive discretion.

You can click here for the actual legislative language of IEEPA.

You’ll see that the President has the power, for all intents and purposes, to severely disrupt or even block financial transactions between people and/or companies in the United States and people and/or companies in a designated foreign country.

And there’s no limit on the definition of “emergency.”

One could argue that an emergency declaration and a ban on the movement of money wouldn’t necessarily prohibit a company from doing business in a particular jurisdiction, but it surely would have that effect.

The economic consequences would be profound. In a negative way.

By the way, the White House Bureau Chief for the Washington Post responded to Trump’s tweet with one of his own.

He says the President, who criticizes socialism, is acting like a socialist.

He’s actually wrong, at least technically.

Socialism is government ownership and control of the means of production.

What Trump is seeking is private ownership and government control. And there’s a different word for that economic policy.

P.S. It’s a good idea for the U.S. government to have powers to respond to a genuine emergency. But it shouldn’t be the decision of one person in our separation-of-powers system. It was a bad idea when Obama was in the White House, and it’s a bad idea with Trump in the White House.

In peacetime, an emergency should require the approval of Congress. In wartime, it should require approval of the House and Senate leadership from both parties.

P.P.S. Trade laws are another example of Congress delegating too much power to the executive branch.

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When I talked to CNBC on Wednesday, I was very critical of Trump and other Republicans for promoting protectionism, Keynesian monetary policy, and wasteful spending.

Yes, I give Trump and the GOP credit for improvements in regulatory policy and tax policy. And I used to think that the pro-growth effect of those reforms was enough to balance out the anti-growth effects of the bad policies.

But I now think the net effect of the Trump presidency is to expand the overall burden of government.

In early July, my report card on Trump’s economic policy (based on the five key indices in Economic Freedom of the World) had him slightly above a C average.

Now, as you can see, he’s slightly below. And since Republicans in Congress are largely going along with Trump’s policies, they also deserve blame.

I realize that people also care about other matters, such as social issues, the judiciary, and foreign policy, so it’s not my goal to influence how anyone votes.

But I do want people to understand that economic policy matters. And for readers who like Trump (or at least think he’s a less-worse alternative than Sanders, Harris, Warren, etc), be forewarned that Trump’s big-government policies are increasing the probability of having Democrats win in 2020.

The lesson Republicans should have learned from Ronald Reagan is that good policy is good politics (my Fourth Theorem of Government).

George H.W. Bush didn’t learn that lesson. George W. Bush didn’t learn that lesson. And now Trump is demonstrating that he didn’t learn that lesson.

P.S. Some of us knew ahead of time to expect bad policy from Trump.

P.P.S. Since my 2016 election prediction was wrong, feel free to ignore my political prognosticating.

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